​Albertans should take back to the streets to stand up for the AER

It was an interesting spring and summer in downtown Calgary and around Alberta, what with the rallies and all.

Why, there were days when thousands of energy sector workers poured into the streets to demonstrate support for Canada's oil and gas industry.

It was something to behold. There were placards and posters and sloganed T-shirts. There were chants and speeches. There was undeniable passion.

In brief, they were rallying to support the integrity of Canadian oil and gas — and they were telling politicians (and by extension, other Canadians) in no uncertain terms to get with the support program.

The key word here: integrity. That's the point rally delegates wanted to make to politicians: quit screwing up the sector and support its integrity. Do that and you support Canadian prosperity. In other words, integrity and prosperity go hand in hand.

There's another lexical soulmate for integrity-backed prosperity: independence.

So, here's a critical question: will we pour into the streets to rally in similar fashion to protect the Alberta Energy Regulator's integrity — and its independence — as it enters into a process potentially primed for political tinkering?

The United Conservative Party has launched its AER review process. And it smells to high heaven of craven politicking and agenda setting — including, one might suspect, an effort to slide the AER closer to Alberta Energy, the provincial ministry for most things on the province's energyscape.

To the degree that the AER's independence from government isn't necessarily top of mind for ordinary Albertans, the thought that the regulator's ability to protect the interests all Albertans — not just those noisy UCP supporters — is potentially in peril could rock the foundation of a system that has worked marvellously well for decades.

When it comes to regulatory integrity, you can't fit a micron measure between independence and integrity.

Integrity is important on so many levels.

Energy minister Sonya Savage has made much of two things: the AER's alleged growth in staff and the lengthy time lapses for processing applications.

Those dynamics, she contends, discourage investment and interest in Alberta's energy industry.

What would investors think of this, though? Would investors be eager to park capital in a jurisdiction in which the failure of an independent regulator produced approvals to applications that resulted in lengthy hearings; the lack of trust in which resulted in court action? We're then into potentially project-killing delay territory.

But we must wait for the facts of the review to emerge before jumping to that conclusion. Since 2013 when the current AER was formed, has staffing actually grown? Or remained flat?

Given the AER's own red-tape cutting initiatives of late, are application times actually increasing? Or decreasing? Has the innovative OneStop platform helped with efficiency, notwithstanding that public consultations as existing policy-driven imperatives within the application framework can cause seemingly minor applications to drag on disproportionate to the application's complexity.

There's a little piece of legislation called the Responsible Energy Development Act which sets out much of the legislative framework it is up to the AER to work within, and understandably, it has a strong focus on stakeholder engagement.

Presumably, these are details that will be up to deputy ministers Grant Sprague and Bev Yee, who are leading the review with the new board, to ferret out as they delve into details that may not be apparent to politicians. That raises the key questions about the review's focus and processes it will use to get at what could be useful improvements; indeed, an impartial review might also point to how reasonably significant under-investment has hampered the AER's ability to discharge its responsibilities.

To kick it off, in that spirit of fairness and even handedness — and to avoid the perception that political machinations may be at work — it would be a good idea for Savage, Sprague and Yee, along with the new board, to get a first-hand demo (if they haven't already) of the OneStop toolkit as a way of quickly diving into the extensive work AER staff have already conducted in the red-tape realm. That might also lead to a discussion of how government inattention to the AER's efforts in this space might lead to a new appreciation of the significant advances that are already known in the public domain but perhaps not sufficiently discussed in government.

If indeed there is a political agenda at work, and that seems logical given the UCP penchant for finding ways and means of appeasing — indeed, some times compounding — industry angst, the review is impeccably timed to be deliberately kept off the public radar given the flurry of panels and consultations that the UCP machine has rolled out. That there's a federal election concurrently running in which AlbertaAngstTM will be foregrounded also usefully provides a veil behind much can be secreted.

All of this, of course, may simply be air cover for what many in various branches of the bureaucracy fear in the next few weeks: budgetary blades that will cut swiftly and deeply.

That's why Albertans must step up, including those whose daily bread is earned in the sector. It might be tempting to vilify the AER as having a part in the complex mosaic of woes that have befallen the industry. In fact, quite the opposite is true. And once we get our hydrocarbons to tidewater, the world will want to know the products come from jurisdictions that are well regulated and the environment appropriately protected — and done so by a framework safely distanced from political interference.

Just ask the good folks at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers; they have in hand survey data which points to the fact people around the world cite Canada as the preferred choice for hydrocarbon production.

The summer's rally attendees also had (and still have) a common cry: “The world needs more Canada.” That's true. Canada's energy sector has much to offer, not least of which is a strong regulatory ethos. But it's also true the world expects more of Canada.

Independent regulation is the least we can offer.

That's why the good folks who put together and attended the previous rallies ought to get Albertans back into the streets to ensure the UCP doesn't damage an enterprise critical to provincial prosperity.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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